For decades, the faded photograph of a baby Japanese girl and a child’s colorful drawing hung on a wall in the home of Franklin Hobbs III in America.
As a 21-year-old U.S. soldier fighting on Iwojima, now known as Iwoto, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, Hobbs found them in the pocket of a fallen Japanese soldier and took them as a souvenir.
Until recently, he tried not to think too much about the battle or the photo and drawing. Then, a few years ago, at his wife’s suggestion, he decided to try to give them back.
For the girl in the photo and her sister, they meant the world.
Hobbs, now 86, returned to Japan two weeks ago for the first time since the war and met with one of the daughters whose life he changed by returning the items. Chie Takekawa had drawn the picture of an air raid drill that Hobbs found on her father — a man she barely knew and whose remains have never been found.
“As a child, I had always wondered when my father would come home from the war,” Takekawa, 74, said Oct. 28 with a beaming Hobbs by her side. “I feel like he has actually come back after all these years. I am very grateful.”
The story of the mementos very nearly ended on Hobbs’ wall.
Hobbs — himself an orphan from an early age — said he first found them in an envelope on a Japanese soldier lying dead outside a large cave. A corporal in the Army Signal Corps, Hobbs had just survived an intense battle on the beach, dug in deep with a buddy and eating raw bacon for three days.
When the fighting had calmed enough, he was assigned to drive a truck to help set up lines of communication for the U.S. troops. He was steering up a hill when he came upon several other Americans searching the bodies of three dead Japanese.
One of them was 36-year-old Matsuji Takekawa.
“I saw the letter sticking out and I said, ‘I don’t want any swords or anything, but I think I’ll take this letter.’ I just picked it up, I suppose out of curiosity. But I felt a little bad about it at the time.”
Hobbs took it with him when Japan’s surrender that August meant he could leave the island after eight months.
He considered himself lucky.
The battle, which began Feb. 19, 1945, and lasted more than a month, claimed 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese lives.
Closure for the Japanese families is rare. About 12,000 Japanese are still classified as missing in action and presumed killed on the island, along with 218 Americans.
Tokyo announced in September it is investigating two sites believed to be mass graves that may contain as many as 2,000 of the dead. Officials say it could take months to collect the remains, and identification is expected to be extremely difficult.
The battle for the tiny volcanic island became a symbol and rallying point for the United States after the U.S. flag was raised on its highest ground, Mount Suribachi.
For Hobbs, it was simply a killing field.
“It was just death everywhere, and I hated it,” he said.
Hobbs graduated from Harvard Business School, married and raised a family. His wife framed the mementos and put them up in one of their sons’ rooms. Hobbs never discussed his memories of the war.
“My kids didn’t know what the drawing was; they thought maybe their mother had drawn it,” he said. “I never really told my kids because there wasn’t that much to tell.”
He later divorced, and when his new wife, Marge, was going through his things at their home in Brookline, Mass., she noticed the mementos and suggested Hobbs try to return them. They contacted a family friend, Reiko Wada, who could read the address on the envelope.
Though the address was outdated, Wada contacted the health ministry — which keeps records for pensions — and was able to find the family in the city of Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture, where it owns a liquor store. To Wada’s surprise, the baby in the photo — Yoko Takekawa — was living in New Jersey, where she had moved to do missionary work.
On a trip to Japan two years ago, Wada turned the photo and drawing over to Japanese officials, who had them delivered to the older sister, Chie, who still lives in Japan.
Chie Takekawa said they are now on the family altar, where she makes daily offerings of water — in her father’s letters home, he often spoke of his constant thirst and how there was never enough water for the soldiers to drink.
“It’s hard to bring back the emotions that I felt when I first saw the letter,” she said. “We were all amazed that this could happen. I was just so happy.”
Like Hobbs, Takekawa had tried to put the war and her loss behind her, but the return of the photo and drawing rekindled her feeling of a connection with her father and inspired her and her sister to join a government-sponsored trip to Iwoto for an annual memorial last March.
“When I got off the airplane I was shocked by how small an island it is,” she said. “All my sister and I could do was cry. I felt I was walking on the soil where he is buried. I wanted to dig in my hands and try to find him.”
Takekawa now intends to go to Iwoto every year. “I feel that somehow my father made this all happen,” she said.